the tyranny of bad intentions

MrBurnsSomething that has driven me crazy since before I was even a teenager (although for some reason I don’t encounter it much anymore) is the implicit claim that good intentions can justify bad consequences. Has this happened to you? You point out to person A the damage person B has caused, and person A objects with something like "Oh, come on! She meant well" or "He clearly had the best intentions!"

Something that was clear to me early on was, not only that person B needed to be held responsible for the results, but also that person A’s good-intentions argument promoted B’s irresponsible behavior in the future. If you know that you will be judged by what you intended (or worse: what you say you intended) then you have ever less incentive to look at the possible consequences of your actions. What do consequences matter when only what you hoped would happen will count for anything?

I was relieved when I got to college and learned that Immanuel Kant had persuaded many Western philosophers that both good intentions and good consequences are required for an action to count as good. Tough standard, but it sure seemed appropriate to me.

But what about people who do not have the best of intentions — maybe even have base and selfish intentions — but end up helping others anyway?

I was somewhat disoriented during my introduction to the Austrians and Austro-libertarianism when I read Walter Block‘s Defending the Undefendable and encountered panegyrics for such "heroic" professionals as blackmailers, drug pushers, (non-governmental) counterfeiters, and corrupt cops.

UndefendableIn his foreword to Undefendable, Murray Rothbard accurately predicted my reaction:

All right, some readers might concede, we grant that these people are performing valuable economic services. But why, for heaven’s sake, call them “heroes”?

(I won’t go into his answer or what I think of it; you can find it in the recent LFB edition of the book.)

I’ve heard Block backpedal on his use of the word heroic, but I’ve also heard him and others use it fairly loosely to describe anyone whose contribution to the economy can be judged as beneficial, whether they intend the benefit or not. This is especially true of maligned activities such as insider trading, so-called usury, and "speculation" in general.

I would argue that these activities should be judged by the criteria of nonaggression and beneficial consequences, regardless of intention. But the use of the word hero risks doing more damage than good. It basically accepts the premise that intentions and personal motivation (generosity, even selflessness) are what matter, and then tries to argue (or risks seeming to) that that the blackmailer, slumlord, or pimp is misunderstood. (Would a Randian argue that it is their very selfishness that makes them heroic?)

But the point shouldn’t be that the majority reflexively misjudge the person. The point should be that the person’s motivations are irrelevant to judging the harm or benefit of his professional activity. To me this seems like the key point of the misunderstanding, and I think it’s the flipside of defending someone with "Oh, come on! She meant well!"

I know converts to libertarianism for whom one of the biggest obstacles to embracing laissez-faire was in accepting that capitalism could be beneficial when the profit motive seems synonymous with selfishness. To the extent I played a role in their conversion, it was in helping them not to worry about intentions — to focus instead on the issues of aggression and consequences.

Judging a person — his or her character, responsibility, soul — may be an important question, but it is certainly a different question from the one libertarians are addressing when we defend certain illegal and maligned activities. And it is the activities we defend (or should defend), not the people.

Libertarians must borrow from the rhetoric of the Christians: we must learn that we can hate the sinner but love the sin.


2 Responses to the tyranny of bad intentions

  1. Can you guess what song this post on bad intentions/beneficial outcomes just put in my head?
    “The hero of Cantan… the man they call Jayne.”

  2. bkmarcus says:

    It’s been a while, Carolyn. I had to look it up:

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